Recently retired Chicago architect David Munson says his 17 sculptures at Roy Boyd “mix up the inside and the outside. There’s no sense of enclosure, and that would be very difficult to achieve in a building.” He says Elliptical Skeleton 1 was inspired by the spinal surgery his wife was undergoing: here wooden “ribs” are supported by a vertical steel tube at the center and connected with aircraft cable; rectangular wooden panels attached to the tube resemble vertebrae. Looking at this piece is like seeing the exterior and interior of a building at once.

In a review, former gallery owner Paul Klein says Munson’s work suggests Vladimir Tatlin, and Munson agrees with this assessment of his pieces as constructivist. Certainly his exposed forms, geometrical shapes, and industrial materials recall this early-20th-century movement, while the tumbling stack of bunched half circles in Deconstructed Sphere is reminiscent of cubist paintings: eight pairs of red semicircles like lips are partly covered where the lips “open” with curved sheets of translucent acrylic. Munson had in mind cutting a sphere into sections, like the sections of an orange; the acrylic resembles teeth. Yellow Bas Relief 1, inspired by crop circles, is a wooden wall panel with cutout lines, curves, and holes whose edges sometimes jut out, creating a dizzying array of relief effects.

Munson declared that he wanted to be an architect at age 13. At 15 he began working at a small architectural firm in his hometown of Norwalk, Ohio, “sweeping floors and inking borders onto drawing sheets.” While studying at the University of Cincinnati in the late 50s, he realized that architects don’t have much freedom early in their careers and started designing and building wooden and steel furniture, for his own use and as a creative outlet.

After graduating in 1962 he moved to Chicago because “it was the mecca for architects”; he worked at Harry Weese and Associates for most of his career. One key lesson he learned from Weese, he says, is that “the structure of things is oftentimes a lot more interesting before it gets covered up by the skin.” He was able to observe that principle clearly while working on the subway system in Washington, D.C., where connecting lines are stacked and stops on both lines are visible at transfer points. Inspired by the early airplanes he saw at the Smithsonian–“very delicate, lightweight structures held together under tension with cables”–Munson designed and built a chandelier and tables using the same principle. He continued to make furniture until the early 70s, when he began to have greater creative input at the firm. In 1990 Munson and several other architects bought it, and he became the design principal. Among his projects were the student union at Chicago State University and the renovation of the Chicago and North Western train shed.

Munson and his wife had two children, a son and a daughter, in the 60s and moved to the suburbs in 1973. His son, Eric, after some scrapes in his early teens became a prizewinning BMX bicycle racer and eventually enrolled at IIT. Common interests drew father and son closer. “We would have conversations about design problems,” Munson recalls. After graduation, his son started his own business making custom furniture of steel and stained wood. Only a few years later, at 27, Eric died in his sleep of an undiagnosed heart defect. Munson says he was devastated but began to include elements from Eric’s work, such as its characteristic curves, in his buildings. He mentions as an example a large canopy over the front entrance of the CSU student union that’s made out of curved steel tubing and glass panels.

When he retired in 2002, ten years after Eric’s death, Munson began working on the sculptures in the present show, many of which use the principles and materials his son favored. “Eric did a chair in which every piece was curved, and he stained his wood with aniline dyes,” Munson says. In Nouveau Tripod–a three-legged tower of steel and painted plywood with twisting sheets of acrylic–all the elements are gracefully curved except for two wooden triangles, and Munson stained the wood with aniline dyes, as he often does. Incorporating his son’s work in his own, he says, is “a way for Eric to somehow continue on, even though he’s not here.”

David Munson

Where: Roy Boyd, 739 N. Wells

When: Through February 8

Info: 312-642-1606

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Fred Camper, Ivan Bordas.